A colourful revolution

The People's Republic of Stokes Croft, a public art project in a rundown district of Bristol, is attempting to harness the creativity of local graffiti artists to transform the area for local residents. Does it offer an alternative to the usual business-led model of urban regeneration? David Matthews investigates

September 20, 2008
6 min read

In Stokes Croft, once dubbed ‘Bristol’s forgotten half mile’, a quiet but colourful revolution is taking place. A loose coalition, the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC), is using public art to transform an area that used to be emblematic of urban decline.

For Chris Chalkley, the one-man dynamo behind the scheme, art has the power to give the district a greater sense of community, and turn it into Bristol’s ‘cultural quarter’. ‘It’s possible that groups of people could come together to form an alternative vision for the area,’ Chris enthuses, as he takes us on a whistle-stop tour of a few of the ‘street galleries’ that have sprung up across Stokes Croft.

Shop fronts, walls and even an electricity sub-station have been adorned with striking images by local artists. Almost anything can be turned into a feature of the area, Chris says. Even mundane objects like drainpipes and litter bins can impart a feeling of identity, safety and vibrancy when they have been decorated with eye-catching, unique designs.

The PSRC is funded and organised almost entirely by Chris himself. Having run a china shop for 25 years, he does not think of himself as either an activist or artist, and relies on local artists to donate their time. In April, around 20-30 volunteers painted the inside of a railway tunnel just outside Stokes Croft. In a single weekend, it became a canvas for myriad different designs. There is no doubting the potential of Bristol’s artists, which is only beginning to be harnessed.

Dissatisfaction and blight

The PRSC has grown out of a need to change the face of the area, and dissatisfaction with the council’s response to its problems. Connecting the shopping centre of the city with more affluent areas to the north, Stokes Croft is a mixture of residential buildings and shops that line the main road. While a number of its buildings are listed, about 30 are derelict, such as a three-storey carriage works from the area’s Victorian heyday, which has stood empty since 1979. A further blight on the district’s image in many people’s eyes is the large number of homeless people, many of them suffering from drug problems, who congregate in what is known locally as the ‘bear pit’: a largely tarmac-covered, sunken roundabout at the end of Stokes Croft, connected to the surrounding streets by forbidding, grimy underpasses. The main road also boasts two less-than-subtle brothels.

Chris is adamant that image problems cannot be fixed simply by moving homeless people on or shutting down the massage parlours. You have to ‘work with what you’ve got’, he says. In their effort to discourage rough sleeping and graffiti by providing only single person seats and covering surfaces in anti-graffiti paint, the council has inadvertently made the area unwelcoming for everyone, says Chris. ‘If the policy is to make public space inhospitable to the homeless, then it will become scary to the public.’

While the PRSC has no formal links with any political organisations, it explicitly challenges what it believes has been the council’s approach to urban development. The focus, the group claims, has been exclusively on attracting private investment and big brands, exemplified by the ongoing £500-million Cabot Circus project to rejuvenate Bristol’s retail heart just a few hundred metres away from Stokes Croft. Instead, the PRSC argues, the aim of regeneration should be to create welcoming public spaces and to promote creativity in the face of creeping corporate homogenisation, with public art a cheap way of doing so that can involve the local community.

‘This is the front line of the battle against the encroachment of Cabot Circus,’ Chris warns, ‘so it needs to have a strong identity.’ However, others think that the new shopping hub, currently festooned with cranes, might be beneficial. ‘Cabot Circus has had a good impact,’ says Lisa Blackwood, who works at the nearby Kuumba Arts and Community Centre. ‘Stokes Croft is too close to Cabot Circus not to be developed.’ Yet commercial enterprise is welcomed by the PRSC, so long as it fits with the area’s independent and eclectic feel. ‘If we change the perception of the area, then businesses will come,’ Chris says. Indeed, cafes, grocers, bookshops and t-shirt printers have sprung up, attracted by relatively low rents.

Character appraisal

Bristol council says that it is working with residents and groups such as the PRSC to improve Stokes Croft. In October 2007 it published a detailed ‘character appraisal’ of the area, assessing its aesthetic and social problems, and also acknowledging that the murals that now dot the area are part of its distinctive character.

They have recently undertaken a £1-million renovation of a hostel for homeless people, and a street-drinking ban in 2003 was largely successful in moving on drinkers from a central grassy patch known as ‘Turbo Island’ on the main road (though critics claim that this has done little more than displace them a few hundred metres down the street). But private investment is still central to renewing urban areas, the council argues: ‘The improvements to the image of the area effected by the work of PRSC are one part of the process, but not sustainable on their own – there needs to be commercial investment to back it up.’

One of the council’s biggest problems is getting private owners to preserve the historic character of their buildings and shop fronts. Some property holders simply hang on to derelict buildings, hoping that a lucrative development offer will come along. The council is currently battling to reclaim the towering Westmoreland House building from the developers Comer Homes, who have left it derelict for more than two decades. Seven people have died since the building was damaged by fire and abandoned in 1969.

As our tour of the Republic comes to an end, Chris is keen to stress that he doesn’t think he has all the answers to Stokes Croft’s problems. Most of the works done so far are temporary. ‘The project is constantly evolving. A year ago I was thinking differently, and next year it will have changed again.’

There may be a risk that street art, while visually exciting, will turn the area into an artistic ghetto, and be exclusive of those who are not a part of the graffiti community. Or, if businesses and affluent residents are drawn in, the resulting rent hikes may push out the very artists who are attempting to accelerate urban renewal. The next step planned for the PRSC is to set up as a social business, where donations are exchanged for a say in the future of the project. Whatever direction the PRSC takes next, there can be no doubt that public art created and funded by local artists can be a cost effective way of putting colour and life back into the inner city.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

2 May open meeting for artist-led poster campaign: End Tory Rule
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform


1